Poor white men and de jure and de facto discrimination:
Let’s talk about poor white men and entitlement. A little bit of social justice 101 for y’all today. First, let’s learn the difference between “de jure” and “de facto”. “De jure” is Latin for “of law”, a way of saying one’s rights are equal under the law. “De facto” means “of fact” or “in fact” meaning, the actual situation on the ground, regardless of what the law says. Social justice is “justice in terms of the wealth, opportunities, and privileges in a society” and deals with the attempt to get de facto and de jure in closer alignment, among other things.
We know that white men, as a group, make more money per capita in the US than other groups including women as a whole, people of color as a whole, and various sub-groups that get doubly discriminated against. We also know that’s not the whole picture. Gay and transgender folk of all colors and genders are specifically targeted for their sexual orientations and gender presentations. Jewish people are often situationally white and privileged, but are still targets of white supremacist groups. Muslims of all colors are discriminated against. And so on. And straight cis white men who are not rich feel discriminated against. These are the poor white men I’m talking about.
What’s this entitlement you’re talking about?
Let’s break that down a bit. It’s true that straight, cis white men play life on the lowest difficulty setting (h/t John Scalzi) it’s also true that within that group, wealth, power and opportunities are unequally distributed. Wealthy white men essentially control all of the levers of society and poor white men do not, though they do benefit from a “benefit of the doubt” not granted to any other disempowered segment of society. They also have a sense of *entitlement* to wealth, power and opportunity that no other disempowered group has.
Poor white men have bought into the very useful lie, propagated by rich white men, that they are members of the same club. They believe that, except for a few unfortunate circumstances, they are just the same as rich white men. They have the same rights to power, wealth, and opportunity. And they blame one of two groups for their failure to get that power, wealth, and opportunity. They blame themselves, and/or they blame women, people of color, LGBTQ folk, and people of marginalized religions.
The “Big Lie” being sold to poor white men:
After all, poor white men have been told that that power, wealth and opportunity are *theirs*. If they didn’t get it, either they are personal failure, or they were “robbed” of what was rightfully theirs. What causes this? It’s a deliberate creation of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism (collectively known as the kyriarchy) in order to keep the small group of (mostly) straight (mostly) white (mostly) male people at the top in power unchallenged. If poor white men believe that there is a significant chance that they will join the power elite (spoiler alert: statistically, there’s not) they will work with the power elite and against their own interests and the interests of others who are oppressed by the power elite, operating as enforcers in the kyriarchal structure.
How does this lie affect poor white men?
It’s an especially cruel delusion on a lot of levels. Poor white men absorb a lot of self loathing and toxic masculinity tropes in order to attempt to resolve a terrible case of cognitive dissonance between their reality and their expectations, and then turn those toxic beliefs outward, harming women, people of color, LGBTQ folk, and “situationally white” folk in varying ways and degrees. They work against their own interests and effectively contribute to the marginalization of others, often taking extreme forms of this, such as white supremacist and Nazi activism and so-called “Men’s Rights activism” which actually amounts to organized, targeted oppression of women. They live in a state of envy and spite, resenting the hard won victories of anyone who isn’t them, including liberal and socialist folk who are white men.
… and how do those poor white men affect the world?
Bringing it back to today’s news, it is poor white men that are the vast majority of mass shooters. This Las Vegas asshole wasn’t poor, or even middle class, but belonged to the 1% himself, making him a bit of an anomaly. But the same forces that create toxic masculinity and entitlement in poor white men reinforce it doubly in rich white men. At a certain point the desire for *more* power, wealth, and opportunity becomes an addiction, an unhealthy obsession. If I were a betting person, I would lay heavy odds that he got on the wrong side of a dispute with the gambling establishment and decided to “get even” with Las Vegas as a whole with his actions.
Social justice and (for?) poor white men:
Does this mean that social justice should write off poor white men (or even rich white men)? No. Many poor white man are or can be allies in social justice, once they realize how stunningly and thoroughly they have been duped. They are not always perfect allies (as though any of us are) but allies who are given the amount of privilege and power that even *poor* white men have in the kyriarchy can be very useful friends to have. They can get within systems to change them. They can reach those more infected by toxic masculinity and white supremacy than they better than those of use with less privilege. They can open doors from within the castle to let the rest of us in.
Do we need to feel sorry for poor white men? Absolutely not. They, like the rest of us, need to be held accountable for their unmarked assumptions and attitudes and expected to “know better and do better”. And how do we reach these guys? Again, this is a job for friends and family. White dudes, white women, people of color with close relationships, etc. People who both have the energy and the inclination for the work. Not those who are most marginalized and most endangered if it goes badly. And it will go badly sometimes.
Why and who – doing social justice with poor white men:
Why is it worth it to reach white men with social justice again? Because it reduces the total level of toxic masculinity and white supremacy in the world. Because social justice starts with the premise that we’re all human beings and as such have rights. And the more human beings we can get on board with this concept, the better off we all are. And because it’s a good direction for allies to focus their energies on. It’s not on allies to police the actions of more marginalized folk, but to create more allies, and police the actions of allies.
If you want to do this work, it often starts with gently challenging assumptions. “I don’t like hearing that sort of talk” “Did you know [fact that refutes assumption]?” “How is that point of view helping?” Lots of Socratic questions, some calm patience, and very firm boundaries. “No, it is not okay to act that way” “We’re not changing the subject to X, we were talking about Y” “In my space, we expect [behavior]”.
For the poor white men reading this:
And for you poor white men who are reading this? I’m not being ironic or sarcastic when I say “poor white men”. I’m not channeling Ursula from The Little Mermaid with “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and plotting your demise. I sincerely hope that something wakes you up and helps you to realize that you are not a temporarily embarassed millionaire, that women and people of color and LGBTQ folk and disabled folk are not stealing “your” jobs (or “your” industries) and that all of our cookies are being hogged by the 1% you voted for and need to stop supporting.
P.S. Poor (and middle class) white women? You (we) are not off the hook. There’s a reason “white women’s tears” and “white feminism” are a problem in the world. But more on that another day.
More about my work:
These essays are work, y’all. I’m a social worker. That means I have lots of education (and commensurate student loan debt) and worse pay than a union carpenter. If you like what I’m doing here, please consider tipping at Paypal or become a Patron at Patreon, where you can also find my mental health writings and podcast, Out of My Mind. More support means I’ll be free to spend more of my time on this sort of thing.
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